The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. If that isn't enough, Cassini will attempt to cross through the rings 22 times.
Since arriving in Saturn orbit in 2004, Cassini has steered clear of the planet's icy ring material, opting for a more distant (and safer) orbit where the gas giant's family of moons could be studied and Saturn could be observed from afar.
NASA is expected to preview the final months of the Cassini spacecraft Saturn mission during a news conference Tuesday at 3 p.m. EDT. Cassini will continue sending data back from several instruments right up until its signal is lost on September 15.
NASA isn't just ending the mission out of boredom though.
The 20-year-old Cassini spacecraft has been investigating the ringed planet for 13 years, thereby providing scientists with numerous insights into Saturn's structure and evolution.
"Back in 2010, we decided that we'd use every last kilogram of propellant to explore the Saturn system as thoroughly as we could", he said.
Its terminal orbits over the next five months will bring it closer to Saturn than ever before. It would be venturing into a region never explored before.
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"The planned conclusion for Cassini's journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission's scientists", says Linda Spilker (NASA-JPL) in a recent press release.
On another moon, Titan, Cassini found rivers of liquid methane and yet more organic chemicals, which Green said raised the question of "a different potential life environment" that does not require water or a DNA-based system. These Grand Finale orbits will take Cassini from a periapsis (closest approach) of 39,000 miles from Saturn's center out to an apoapsis of 87,000 miles, past the outermost edge of the F-ring.
On top of this, the craft will obtain the closest views yet of Saturn's clouds and inner rings. In short, the data gathered by the spacecraft will keep researchers busy for decades to come, scientists said.
During this time Cassini will map Saturn's gravity and magnetic fields and scoop up particles from the rings, finally settling the question of what they made of.
Aside from Earth, Titan is the only place in the solar system known to have rivers, rainfall and seas - and possibly even waterfalls. "Certainly there are some unknowns, but that's one of the reasons we're doing this kind of daring exploration at the end of the mission".
"I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of the discoveries we make with Cassini might be the very best of the mission, from these grand final orbits".
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